Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is trying to buy impunity through culture and tourism; businesses and customers must turn him down

Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is trying to buy impunity through culture and tourism; businesses and customers must turn him down

Pam Bailey
Editor, ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies

Progressive hopes for the incoming Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration in the United States are understandably focusing most intensively on the effort to manage the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous effects on the American economy. However, there also is much damage to be undone in the arena of foreign policy. And although most media attention has been devoted to reopening nuclear-cooperation discussions with Iran and rejoining the Paris Climate agreement, an equal priority must be setting a new direction for the U.S. relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Group of 20 summit (the 19 countries with the largest economies and the European Union) just concluded its 15th meeting. Held in Riyadh this year, Saudi Arabia was the first Arab country to host the prominent gathering—the most recent of many actions by governments, international businesses and cultural institutions that legitimize the kingdom’s abysmal track record in human rights.

Held in Riyadh this year, Saudi Arabia was the first Arab country to host the Group of 20 summit—the most recent of many actions by governments, international businesses and cultural institutions that legitimize the kingdom’s abysmal track record in human rights.

Also this month, the kingdom announced that Formula 1 has approved its debut on the grand prix calendar in November of next year with a night-time street race in Jeddah as part of a long-term partnership believed to extend 10 years. Formula 1 is the highest class of international, single-seater auto racing sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIFA) and is owned by Liberty Media, an American mass media company. The partnership was engineered by the kingdom to raise its profile as an international tourist destination.

In the same vein, Desert X, a California-based biennial art showcase, opened Desert X AlUla in the country’s western desert earlier this year, with the government paying all of the expenses for participating artists. A permanent arts district run by Desert X is operating on the site through March 7.

And not all of the kingdom’s investments are in-country. In April, the Saudi government’s investment fund purchased a 5.7% stake in Live Nation, the parent company of Ticketmaster, a U.S. ticket sales and distribution company, as well as 8% of Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise operator.

The kingdom’s expanding investment in entertainment, cultural and sports events is part of Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, designed to diversify away from oil and attract foreign tourists. It is investing heavily in drawing top talent from across the globe.

Proponents of growing these ties with Saudi Arabia claim they encourage liberalization of the kingdom and adherence to human rights. They point to the government’s recent moves to relax its “guardianship system,” which places many women’s rights under the control male relatives, as well as allow women to drive.

Yet even as the G20 summit opened, Loujain al-Hathloulranked by Time magazine last year as one of the most powerful Arab women—remains imprisoned by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia for her activism 

Yet even as the G20 summit opened, Loujain al-Hathloul—ranked by Time magazine last year as one of the most powerful Arab women—remains imprisoned by the kingdom for her activism and has gone on hunger strike to demand regular family visits. Likewise, the government continues to sponsor a protracted, bloody war on Yemen (aided by American arms companies), and its highest officials were allowed to escape accountability for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While eight Saudi nationals were sentenced for the killing of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Saud al-Qahtani, a close adviser to Bin Salman, was exonerated.

 

"The two years since Saudi agents' brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 has brought no accountability for top-level officials implicated in the murder," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Since then, Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country's image as a pervasive human rights violator."

Biden has signaled a change is coming: “It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations last year when asked about Saudi Arabia. “We will make clear that America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons.”

The U.S. president-elect also told the council that Saudi Arabia would no longer have a “dangerous blank check” and that the United States would “insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones.”

However, for such a policy to be effective, the business and nonprofit communities must follow suit.  The U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights call on commercial enterprises to conduct due diligence to identify and address human rights risks connected to their activities. That due diligence should include taking measures to avoid laundering the reputations of governments, other businesses and individuals responsible for ongoing or recent serious human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch has launched a campaign to educate performers and sports figures about Saudi Arabia’s ongoing human rights violations and is asking organizers and participants in international events sponsored by the Saudi government to object publicly or pull out altogether. Business heads from all sectors of the economy should heed this call. And if they don’t, their customers and investors should protest with their wallets.

As Shireen al-Adeimi, a Yemeni and assistant professor of education at Michigan State University asks, “If this was an African warlord from a poor country, would we even be having this conversation? Would we be so cautious about how we respond?”

Clearly, the answer is no. Bin Salman must be shown that his money can’t buy everything.

 

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